Financial History 139 (Fall 2021) - Page 9


Will Rogers , Stocks , Banks and Eggs

By Brian Grinder and Dan Cooper
Will Rogers was born in Indian Territory in 1849 . Both of his parents were part Cherokee , and he was proud of that heritage . Today , it is hard to fathom how this unpresuming , seemingly unsophisticated cowboy from Oklahoma was able to master every entertainment medium available to him from vaudeville to newspapers , to movies and radio ; Will Rogers did it all .
Rogers wrote and commented on just about everything , including Wall Street . We first encountered the Rogerian view of the stock market in a now long outof-print investments text that introduced one chapter with the advice Rogers gave at the end of his Daily Telegram column for October 31 , 1929 , “‘ Don ’ t gamble ’; take all your savings and buy some good stock , and hold it till it goes up , then sell it . If it don ’ t go up , don ’ t buy it .” While it may sound ridiculous , it evidently inspired Albert W . Thomas , who used the grammatically correct version — If It Doesn ’ t Go Up , Don ’ t Buy It — as the title of his 1999 investment strategy book !
Rogers was famous for his ungrammatical style . Ben Yagoda opens his biography of Rogers with a 1930 memo from the managing editor of The New York Times to the paper ’ s proofreading room , “ Please do not correct Will Rogers ’ s English or spelling . His little pieces are unique because he makes his own English . When you ‘ improve ’ it you are taking away part of the personality he is selling to readers .” That memo must strike terror in the heart of every sixth grade English teacher who reads it .
Much of Rogers ’ s fame emanated from his successful effort to portray himself as a common man . He was one of us . As new technologies swept the nation and the Great Depression reared its ugly head , Rogers was seen as a down home voice of calm reason . In a nation where the federal government seemed to be out of touch with most people and where Wall Street spoils largely poured into the coffers of already rich East Coast robber barons , Rogers ’ s writings struck a chord .
For instance , in his March 18 , 1923 Weekly Article for The New York Times , Rogers wrote on the folly of easy credit , which he described as a “ Sucker Game .” Reflecting on the received wisdom of the time , Rogers wrote , “ You can ’ t break a man that don ’ t borrow ; he may not have anything , but Boy ! he can look the World in the face and say , ‘ I don ’ t owe you Birds a nickel .’” Instead of Congress passing legislation making borrowing money easier , Rogers suggested outlawing borrowing altogether and forcing bankers — such as “ the Ali Baba of this gang ” of bankers J . P . Morgan , “ Charlie ” Schwab and “ Barney ” Baruch — to find real jobs .
“ So you see it ’ s not from a personal view that I am abolishing Banks ,” Rogers concluded , “ It ’ s just that I don ’ t think these Boys realize really what a menace they are . As far as being good fellows , personally , I have heard old timers talk down home in the Indian Territory and they say the James and Dalton Boys were the most congenial men of their day , too .” Great Plains farmers and workingclass city dwellers all over the nation , no doubt , nodded approvingly as they read this column over their morning cup of coffee .
Thoughts of Will Rogers on the Late Slump in Stocks
Sure must be a great consolation to the poor people who lost their stock in the late crash to know that it has fallen in the hands of Mr . Rockefeller , who will take care of it and see that it has a good home and never be allowed to wander around unprotected again .
There is one rule that works in every calamity . Be it pestilence , war or famine , the rich get richer and the poor get poorer . The poor even help arrange it . But it ’ s just as Mr . Brisbane 1 and I have been constantly telling you , “ Don ’ t gamble ”; take all your savings and buy some good stock , and hold it till it goes up , then sell it . If it don ’ t go up , don ’ t buy it .
Yours , Will Rogers
October 31 , 1929
In April 1928 , Rogers was invited to be the toastmaster for the dedication of the new Chicago Mercantile Exchange ( CME ) building . It seemed odd for the CME to choose Rogers for this honor . The program for dedication , which was printed in the April 25 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune , proudly listed the toastmaster as “ Will Rogers , Himself ” and urged readers to listen “ On the air through [ radio station ] WLS between 9 and 10 o ’ clock tonight .” Futures historian Jerry H . Markham observed that the CME “ for some unknown reason boasted that its building had been dedicated by Will Rogers in 1928 .”
Why would a commodities exchange invite someone described as “ the nation ’ s cracker-barrel philosopher ” to speak on this auspicious occasion ? Part of the answer can be found in the public perception of the CME . Long known to outsiders as “ The Whorehouse of the Loop ,” the CME , according to financial journalist Bob Tamarkin , was a “ roughhouse of trading cliques .” Members of the older , more stately Chicago Board of Trade ( CBOT ) tended to look down their noses at the CME . The Wall Street Journal described the tension between the two exchanges as
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